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The Soviet Union was the world’s first experiment in totalitarianism, the twentieth century’s contribution to the political experience of humankind. That particular system, with its numerous offshoots and satellites, lasted more than seventy years and wreaked havoc on a third of the human race.

Its best analysts—such as Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Conquest, and Alain Besançon—agreed in calling it an “ideocracy” because of its inhuman effort to govern according to utopian ideological criteria almost wholly disconnected from the lived experience of humankind. The forcible imposition of ideological categories on humanity inevitably gave rise to a perverted social order based on violence and lies. This project drew powerful impetus from the radical Enlightenment’s dream of a fully “rational” society purged of tradition, human spontaneity, and “monkish superstition.” Not surprisingly, then, Communist regimes were treated indulgently by progressive intellectuals, who saw them as the true completion of democracy and the fulfillment of the noblest aspirations of modern rationalism.

The totalitarianism of the Communist sought to realize this philosophical promise through an unprecedented assault on the traditional contents of life. Lenin, the father of the Soviet state, provided a bone-chilling defense of revolutionary despotism: The task confronting the new order was to “purge Russia of all sorts of harmful insects.” These insects included religious believers, the bourgeoisie, all the aristocracy, any property-owning peasants or “kulaks,” and the independent-minded socialists who refused to sever socialism’s remaining connections with Western humanism and the liberal and democratic cause. The Bolshevik regime thus tried to build a caricature of modernity through forced industrialization and a frontal assault on the traditional foundations of the Russian way of life: the peasantry, an independent intelligentsia, and the Orthodox Church. Anywhere between twenty and thirty-five million human beings perished between 1917 and 1956 as this project unfolded.

Alexander Yakovlev has described that assault with grace and controlled indignation in his magisterial 2002 A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. As Martin Malia argued in a series of profound books, culminating in his 1999 Russia Under Western Eyes, there was nothing distinctively Russian about this nihilistic assault on the very pediments of civilized order.

Revolutionaries who had no experience of the old Russian regime or the currents of Russian history replicated a nearly identical pattern of ideological despotism from “Petrograd to the China Seas.”

Something more universal and more fundamental was at stake than the hovering specter of Ivan the Terrible or the authoritarian legacy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tsars. Communism belongs to universal history.

But there have always been those who have seen in Soviet communism nothing more than the atavistic residue of an authoritarian past, a modernized form of “Asiatic despotism.” Many on the Left so argued in order to save Marxist theory from being permanently discredited by its association with Soviet practice.

This recourse to the concept of Oriental despotism drew on the intellectual prestige of such thinkers as Montesquieu and Hegel, who painted evocative portraits of a fearsome social order in which the despot alone is free and where nothing limits or constrains his power. The distinction between Western civic culture and the monolithic somnolence of eastern despotism is also central to Marquis de Custine’s famous 1839 critique of Russian autocracy (“Journey from Russia”), a critique that became newly fashionable during the heyday of the Cold War.

Not ideocracy, then, but the residue of tsarist autocracy became the interpretive key to gaining access to the radical otherness of the Soviet universe. Rather than being known as the model of a revolutionary regime, Soviet communism was seen as essentially alien to the Western political experience. For the members of this school, Lenin and Stalin were essentially tsars who justified their abuses of power with revolutionary slogans that they did not understand or really believe.

Much the same was said of Mao in China, who was often compared by sinologists to the Chinese emperors of distant millennia (this despite Mao’s determined efforts to destroy traditional Chinese culture during the decade-long “Cultural Revolution”). As a result, both enlightenment thought in general and Marxism in particular were spared from any guilt by association with the monstrous ideocracies that claimed them as an inspiration.

The distinguished Harvard historian and Russianist Richard Pipes is the contemporary doyen of this Orientalist approach. His latest book, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture, is an impressive but deeply flawed study of the Russian conservative tradition. In it, Pipes insists that Russia is “fated” to be ruled by Red or Black, revolution or reaction, and that no middle path is available to this forlorn people. Pipes thus designates Russia and the Russian political tradition the permanent European instantiation of Asiatic despotism. The key to unlocking the Russian enigma is what Pipes calls “patrimonial despotism.” Invoking Montesquieu and Hegel as well as Marx himself, Pipes defines patrimonialism as a social arrangement where sovereignty and ownership are radically collapsed and where the “owner-ruler had no notion that his subjects had legitimate interests of their own.”

Pipes previously developed this notion in such important works as Russia Under the Old Regime (1974) as well as in his classic two-volume study of the Russian Revolution, The Russian Revolution and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, and his wide-ranging 1999 investigation of Property and Freedom. At times, Pipes concedes that the Communists united revolutionary utopianism and Russian patrimonialism in a toxic mix that created an unprecedented form of despotism. At other times, though, he dismisses the novelty of Communist totalitarianism and sees in it a thoroughly reactionary regime that owes far more to the legacy of the most fearful and despotic tsars than its does to authentic revolutionary ideology.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Pipes went so far as to say that the Soviet Union “was a reactionary regime which had more in common with the autocracy of Nicholas I or an Alexander III than with the socialist ideals of the radical intelligentsia.” He thus suggests that there is no fundamental discontinuity between the Russian and Soviet experiences.

At other times, however, he renews the argument of conservative-minded political thinkers such as Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville who, in their day, excoriated intellectuals for their abstract or literary politics. In some respects, then, Pipes is a conservative critic of revolutionary fanaticism.

And yet, this turns out to be a decidedly secondary note in his work as a whole. To be sure, he was an honorable opponent of the Soviet regime. But his suspicions of Russia run far deeper still. Pipes’ one-sided emphasis on patrimonialism as the “cause of causes” finally lacks all sense of proportion. He has an essentialist conception of the Russian past and present that leaves little room for responsible moral or political agency. He thus fails to incorporate the facts and legitimate insights that abound in his rich but one-sided historiography of things Russian.

In Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, Pipes broadens his focus to encompass what might be called the “ideological defense” of patrimonialism. If most Western scholars have concentrated on the liberal and revolutionary strands of Russian political thought, Pipes focuses on what he sees as the dominant conservative strain in Russian political culture. And since the character of conservatism is largely determined by particular historical situations, Pipes identifies Russian conservatism with a self-conscious defense of patrimonial autocracy.

He thus draws the sharpest possible contrast between the Western political tradition and what he perceives as the fundamentally statist character of Russian politics and Russian political reflection.

If Western politics gradually evolved toward a well-articulated affirmation of formal and informal limits on state power, the Muscovite state increasingly conflated ownership and sovereignty in a manner that defines patrimonial despotism.

Now, Pipes is undoubtedly right that the liberties that flourished in medieval Russia (such as urban veches or councils) were superseded in the early Muscovite period by a new political order where the tsar spoke of the nation as his “estate” and the people as his servants and serfs. Still, he repeatedly downplays the significance—and even the reality—of any fundamental departure from his patrimonial understanding of the relation between rulers and ruled.

Pipes, for instance, ably chronicles how, at crucial moments in the intellectual debates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the “pro-autocracy party prevailed” over those who wished to affirm significant legal and spiritual restraints on the political authority of the tsarist state.

But these dissenting voices never lost out altogether as they might well have in a genuinely despotic state. Pipes is in his element in describing “reactionary” thinkers and statesmen such as the historian Nicholas Karamzin (1766-1826) and the jurist and procurator general of the Orthodox Church under Alexander III, Konstantin Pobodonostev (1827-1907), who defended unalloyed autocracy on a variety of philosophical, theological, and political grounds.

These men were indeed theorists of something resembling patrimonialism. They recognized no limits above the will of an autocrat whose responsibility was to preserve the unity of the Russian empire against both foreign threat and revolutionary contagion.

But Pipes’ thesis is undermined by evidence that he himself provides. Many defenders of the autocratic ideal sharply distinguished between despotism and the moral responsibilities of a Christian monarch.

On the other hand, Slavophiles may have been blind to the defects of the peasant commune and were no doubt prone to romanticize the actual operation of autocracy in nineteenth-century Russia.

But they were eloquent defenders of glasnost (openness) and recognized the need for a sharp demarcation between the responsibilities of a state requires and the freedoms and obligations inherent in any civil society.

Pipe’s description of the growing power of societal opinion in nineteenth-century Russia belies the description of Russian autocracy as an Asiatic despotism dominated by the caprice of a single ruler.

Pipes also notes that many reform-minded Russians supported autocracy as a means of introducing greatly needed changes and of holding a vast empire together. Such a prudential defense of autocracy has little or nothing in common with support for despotism or arbitrariness per se.

Pipes acknowledges the far-reaching changes introduced by Tsar Alexander II after 1860. The tsar not only abolished serfdom but introduced trial by jury and an independent court system. He liberalized the universities and created a zemstvo system of local and provincial self-government. But Pipes faults Alexander II for defending the principle of autocracy—as if it is necessarily coextensive with despotism—and for resisting pressures to give Russia a constitution.

In fact, the tsar was about to approve a national advisory council (where representatives of local government would be invited for consultation) when he was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists in 1881. Pipes is equally critical of men such as D.M. Shipov (1851-1920).

The head of the zemstvo movement on the eve of the first Russian Revolution of 1905, Shipov sharply distinguished between autocracy and despotism. Shipov thought that left-liberal constitutionalists of his time made too much of rights and gave too little thought to the responsibilities of citizens and rulers alike.

This Christian of deep conviction favored an enhanced zemstvo system and defended the principle “To the tsar, power, to the nation, opinion.”

Shipov’s intriguing mix of autocracy, self-government, and separate spheres for state and society appears merely incoherent to Pipes. But by lumping the likes of Pobodonotsev and Shipov into a unitary conservative tradition, Pipes conflates the most liberal-minded defenses of autocracy with support for a truly “patrimonial” social order. Not only does Pipes fail to make the requisite distinctions, but he continually understates the profound changes that occurred in Russia between 1860 and 1917. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, all of these constructive developments came “crashing down in 1917.”

Pipes and Solzhenitsyn share a deep admiration for Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), the outstanding political figure of the late tsarist period. Both Solzhenitsyn and Pipes agree that “Stolypin was a sophisticated conservative liberal, the last of his breed.” Stolypin supported the constitutional order established in 1906 and treated “society’s elected representatives as equals.” He introduced far-reaching agrarian reforms that aimed to create a class of independent peasant proprietors in Russia and championed local self-government as the best means to promote civic consciousness among the people.

As Pipes notes, Stolypin did everything within his power to “lay the social foundations of constitutional autocracy in Russia.” He used the full powers of the state to crush revolutionary terrorism without showing any nostalgia for the discredited authoritarianism of the past.

But while Solzhenitsyn endorses a neo-Stolypinite agenda for contemporary Russia and believes that the great statesman might have led his country to civic salvation if he had not been assassinated in 1911(perhaps even returning to power after 1914 to save his nation from impending disaster), Pipes sees Stolypin instead as a tragic figure whose noble project was doomed to failure from the very beginning. For Pipes, patrimonialism is Russia’s fate, and not even the most enlightened statesmanship can free her from her authoritarian destiny.

Pipes claims to find powerful support for his thesis in Russia’s current political trajectory. He sees in Putin an aspiring despot and believes that Russia is on the verge of plunging once again into full-fledged authoritarianism.

But does the evidence support such a catastrophic view? “Managed democracy” in Russia certainly leaves much to be desired. Putin has certainly done little or nothing to support vigorous local self-government. He has consolidated the state’s control of national television while allowing hundreds of independent newspapers and radio stations to flourish. (It should be noted that two of the biggest programs on state television in Russia over this year are productions of the anti-totalitarian classics First Circle and Doctor Zhivago.)

To his credit, Putin has had the courage to challenge the criminal oligarchy and he has had some success in marginalizing the Communist party. He has also gone some way to restoring the confidence of many ordinary Russians in their nation’s future after the predatory capitalism of the 1990s.

At a minimum, Putin’s Russia is less autocratic than, for instance, Pilsudski’s authoritarian regime in 1930s Poland. His government should certainly be taken to task when it is tempted to pursue an overtly authoritarian path. But what—we must as—does this have to do with some innate propensity of Russians, and apparently Russians alone, to authoritarian governance?

It is that aspect of Pipes’ thesis that borders on contempt for the Russian people. Regretfully, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics, like many of Pipes’ earlier writings, reads too much like an indictment of Russia itself rather than an attempt to distinguish between better and worse features of her national patrimony.

Daniel J. Mahoney is professor of political science at Assumption College and co-editor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005, forthcoming from ISI Books.